There's no shortage of interesting storylines for this week: Can Oregon State get off to their best start Erickson was coach? Can Stanford & USC bounce back after tough losses? Can Cal start to turn their season around, or will UCLA continue to emerge as a serious threat in the South? Can Leach finally get his Air Raid clicking in high gear?
On to the picks, starting with tonight's game:
Thursday, 6:00 PST, ESPN: USC 27, @ Utah 13
With John White still nursing an ankle injury and not 100%, I don’t see much hope for the Utes to win this one, even at home in the altitude. Their defense is still their strong point and they have a shot at slowing down what has been a mildly disappointing Trojan offense, but USC’s defense has been pretty good too, and Utah’s offense without White can’t even be called one-dimensional. Maybe half-dimensional.? I expect the Trojans to learn from their loss to Stanford and stack the box against whatever run game Utah can muster and force Hays to beat them, and I don’t see that happening. Barkley probably won’t have a great game against the Utah defense, but he only needs to have a decent game, and that’s not a hard thing to do when your top two WR’s are Marquise Lee and Robert Woods.
Saturday, Noon PST, Fox: @ Stanford 24, Arizona 21
Most observers expected Stanford’s offense to take a step back this year without Luck, DeCastro, Martin & Fleener, but I don’t think anyone expected them to be this weak. The thought was a strong running game would allow new QB Nunes to not have to carry the load, but instead the Cardinal running attack has had only one good game – the upset of USC – and the passing offense has floundered. In that regard, Arizona’s defense should provide a nice confidence boost for the Cardinal. Arizona will probably try to take away Stanford’s run game like the Huskies did, but they haven’t shown much ability in that regard so far this year. Not so their opponent - where Stanford shines is their defense. Their secondary isn’t great, but it often doesn’t matter because the front 7 is so good at stopping the run and harassing the QB. Arizona’s high-powered offense will be the stiffest test to date for the Cardinal, but I think they’ll bounce back just enough at home to pull out a close game.
Saturday, 3:00 PST, P12N: @ Oregon State 37, WSU 20
I will admit I blew it regarding Oregon State this year – I looked at their past couple of seasons and who they had coming back and I just didn’t see much hope for them to have a good year. The joke’s on me – Mike Riley is still one of the best in the business, and he’s got his team back to playing like they did from ’06-’09. Riley QB’s usually take a big step forward in their 2nd year, and Mannion has been no exception. It helps that Wheaton continues to improve and Cooks has emerged as an excellent WR in his own right to give him two terrific targets. Their defense has returned to being a strength, with Masaniai in the middle playing very well. The Cougs are really scuffling, and while they gave a game effort in the 1st half last week, they have a ways to go to become a good team. Their offense has been a surprise in a bad way as Leach’s Air Raid passing attack has not been an improvement so far, and their running game has been negligible. Their defense has been bad (as expected), though they have been good at rushing the passer. The Beavers should win this one comfortably.
Saturday, 7:00 PST, P12N: UCLA 34, @ California 17
I hope the Cal trainers have lots of ice ready for Maynard after the game, because he’s going to be black and blue. The Bear OL has been terrible in pass-protection, worst in the country in fact in sacks allowed per game. Meanwhile the Bruin defense ranks 10th in sacks – ruh roh. In fact none of the numbers so far on the season look good for Cal against UCLA. On paper, the Bruins should roll behind a highly potent offense led by the surprisingly good young RS-Fr Hundley and a strong running game against an under-performing Cal defense. UCLA is vulnerable to a good run game, but will Tedford be able to stick to it if the Bears fall behind? This is a critical game for Cal – lose this and the season would appear to become hopeless in terms of a bowl and the hot-seat talk for Tedford becomes the top story. Hard to imagine the psyche of this team is good right now, but you never know – they might finally rally together, and Tedford might decide to unleash Bigelow again. I’m not counting on it though.